A 1980s murder during the farm crisis: A desperate, hapless farmer and son kill ag lenders
MARSHALL, Minn. — Lincoln County, Minn., was home to some the most bizarre early outcroppings of the farm credit crisis as it unfolded in the Upper Midwest in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Joseph Amato, now of Minnetonka, is a history professor emeritus and former dean of rural and regional studies at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, wrote about it in two books—one about a famous Jerusalem artichoke Ponzi scheme and the other about the murder of two agricultural lenders at Ruthton, Minn..
A native of Detroit, Amato quickly embraced the ethnic and cultural idiosyncrasies that made up the farming patchwork in the Dakotas and Minnesota.The southwest Minnesota/northwest Iowa area had a history of activism, dating to the "Farmers Holiday Movement" of the 1930s. The Depression was period was marked by milk dumping, farmer's strikes and civil unrest.
Amato started noticing similar themes in a farm crisis in the late 1970s, when the American Agriculture Movement got rolling.
Minnesota farmers were among those driving tractors to Washington and tying up the National Mall. "These were (larger) tractors that were beginning to open the door to greater acreage (farms)," he said. Outsiders wondered how much fuel was spent, and how the groups traveled. It was costing money.
Technology was changing farms, increasing efficiency and debt. Farm magazines wrote about the "young tigers' who put pressure on smaller producers. Farmers in the region were grasping for hope, some caught up in the religious fervor of Jerusalem artichoke scam, also in Marshall, Minn.
In 1978, farmers started to send tractorcades to Washington, D.C.
On Feb. 13, 1983, farmer and tax protester Gordon Kahl had a shootout with the U.S. Marshal's Service at Medina, N.D. Kahl died June 31, 1983, near Smithfield, Ark., in shootout in which the local sheriff died. Kahl's son, Yori, and another man were convicted and would serve life sentences.
A few months later, another killing was in the headlines.
A failed farmer and his son lured a pair of ag bankers on Sept. 29, 1983, at 8:30 a.m., a few miles north of Ruthton, Minn., pretending to be potential buyers. The son shot them dead.
The case was covered extensively by the "locals"— The Globe of Worthington and the Marshall County Independent newspapers, but also "outsider" publications including the New York Times, Amato said.
It was a shocking story: failed former farmer James Jenkins, 46, and his son Steven, 18, lured Rudolph "Rudy" Blythe, president and owner of the Buffalo Ridge State Bank of Ruthton, and his loan officer, Deems "Toby" Thulin to a farmstead Jenkins had once inhabited.
The father-and-son Jenkins duo fled to Paducah, Texas, near Lubbock, where later James Jenkins died by a shot from his own shotgun.
Steven turned himself in.
On Oct. 28, 1983, a grand jury charged Steven with murdering the bankers. He never took the stand but was convicted of bushwhacking the bankers, shooting one from a distance and and chasing them down.
Amato said the "bigger outside press" press that seldom showed up in rural America often got the story wrong. There were three non-fiction books, including one by a New York Times writer. "People" magazine ran a story.
Jim Langman, a Starbuck, Minn., farmer and local president of AAM:: "A farmer is a human being, and a human being is an animal; if you beat at him, poke at him, and take everything away from him, he's going to turn and bite back,"
Amato wrote a detailed, more nuanced account in his book, "When Father and Son Conspire: A Minnesota Farm Murder," published in 1988.
Amato wrote that James was the only child of poor farmers in rural Florence, Minn., east of Lake Benton. He'd quit school after 10th grade, married his wife Darlene and had a daughter and son, Steven.
In the midst of a booming farm economy in April 1974, James and Darlene bought a 148-acre farm for $38,000 but sold out in 1977, with five judgments against the property totaling $5,000.
Later that year, they bought 10-acre, $21,000 farmstead where the murder would occur six years later. In 1979, James borrowed $42,000 from the Ruthton bank to expand and refinance a loan from the Farmers Home Administration, the "lender of last resort." James was milking just 25 cows. Grain and feed prices were high.
In October 1979, he borrowed another $18,000 offering his equity as collateral. Darlene commuted to jobs in Pipestone and Marshall, but it wasn't enough. In August 1980, James called the bank to say his wife was leaving him, so he was quitting the farm. She filed for divorce, alleging verbal abuse. She later remarried.
James complained to others that his wife may have been stepping out with an employer and even bank president Rudy Blythe. Blythe was 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, the son of a Philadelphia pharmaceutical researcher, who had served overseas in the U.S. Army. Educated at the University of Iowa and at Temple University, Blythe started his banking career in Des Moines, Iowa, and in 978 bought his own bank at Ruthton, where he hired Thulin.
Thulin, out of the military in 1969, had worked in banking near Litchfield, Minn., and at Ada, Minn. He'd been police chief at Shelly, Minn., and had been special deputy sheriff in Norman County, and unsuccessfully ran for sheriff in 1978. At Ruthton, he was hired to deal with delinquent borrowers.
After quitting the farm, James Jenkins illegally sold cattle that been collateral for a Buffalo Ridge Bank loan.
Jenkins filed for bankruptcy, owing $25,000. He started another dairy operation west of Alexandria, Minn., near Hoffman, but the barn burned. He started trucking in Ohio, then hitchhiked to Texas for labor and maintenance jobs at a school district. Steven quit school in 11th grade and joined his dad in Texas.
The loner and his son returned to Minnesota to rent a 20-acre farm near Hardwick, Minn., for $250 a month. They slept on air mattresses and were refused loans and credit by cattle sellers, citing poor credit references from Buffalo Ridge Bank.
James had bought an M-1 rifle for his son, Steven, who "dressed like he was AWOL from the Army or the Marines," as Amato puts it. One of James' co-workers, a Vietnam veteran, taught the boy how to use it.
Soon, he'd use it.
Steven's trial was judicial theater seldom seen in the area.
Defense attorney Allan "Swen" Anderson, a controversial, loud, profane trial lawyer from Granite Falls, took Steven's case for free. Swen Anderson tried to earn money for a psychological examination of Steven by selling the story to a New York writer screenplay writer. (He suggested his character in a movie should be played by Oscar-winner George C. Scott.)
In a bizarre twist, Anderson kept Steven in his own home during the trial and in 1984 actually adopted the young man, which allowed the defendant to change his last name to Anderson. Steven's mother (and her new husband, and former boss) bankrolled Steven's $150,000 bond.
Steven confessed to two charges, and claimed he went with his father to "rob and scare" Blythe.
The jury found Steven guilty of first-degree premeditated killing of Blythe and second-degree intentional killing of Thulin. The judge sentenced Steven Anderson (formerly Jenkins) to life in prison for killing Blythe, and to 100 months for the murder of Thulin.
In late 1985, Anderson appealed the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court but was rejected. On Feb. 2, 1986, Anderson died of a heart attack. In May 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand Steven's conviction.
In 2000, Steven Anderson confessed to the murders in a television documentary, saying he had been convinced Blythe was the source of the family's problems.
Tom Fabel, the prosecutor in the case, helped get him on a path to parole. Steven (Jenkins) Anderson at age 49 was released on parole in May 2015. He will remain under supervision of the Hennepin County authorities for life.
To read the first part of Mikkel Pates' series looking back at the farm crisis of the 1980s, visit https://www.agweek.com/business/agriculture/4546807-1980s-farm-crisis-origins-myths-and-realities-jerusalem-artichoke.
Next week: The 1980s farm crisis rises in the Dakotas.